TV biz hops on Orient Express

The Far East is the flavor of the month in the international television business.

Not only is there record attendance among buyers, sellers, old and new broadcasters from that part of the world at the ongoing Mipcom TV Market (which runs through Friday), but the key conference of this year’s edition, “Television Opportunities in Southeast Asia,” pointed up that much more money can be made there.

The gabfest yesterday was mostly an occasion to get acquainted with the new players and the issues they are grappling with. It was organized jointly by MIPCOM’s parent organization MIDEM and by Variety Inc. and moderated by Variety Inc.’s editorial director, Peter Bart. Its conclusion: great potential, pitfalls aplenty, patience a prerequisite.

Emerging regional players like the Hong Kong-based satellite-delivered Star TV or local commercial contenders like IBC in Thailand already know this; a number of Western companies– from CNN Intl. and BBC World Service TV to HBO and Fox–are just now positioning themselves to learn it.

Here are the facts that are making them attentive students.

Asia today has half the world’s population; by the end of the decade it will boast two-thirds of the globe’s total and six of its 10 largest cities.

Robust economies

Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan–currently the world’s most robust economies– will offer 13 million new consumers by the year 2000. The next wave of developing countries–Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines–will offer 60 million more. Even China, given present trends, may have 100 million more consumers of reasonable income.

Video penetration in some of these countries, especially Singapore, Korea and Hong Kong, is phenomenally high, indicating a dissatisfaction with current broadcast offerings.

Increased leisure time

“With this expansion of disposable income and leisure time comes a demand for more and better entertainment services,” said featured speaker Robert Alter, senior adviser to Star TV.

In his view, as Asian countries expand and become more affluent, they have more product tastes and desires in common. “This creates a new Asian mosaic–a complete picture rather than individual pieces. A unified region.”

And just as the ’80s witnessed the commercialization and deregulation of the European airwaves and the discovery by marketeers that they could approach the continent on a regional basis, so now similar mechanisms are at work in Southeast Asia.

The beaming in of Star TV’s five channels of programming–some of it in Mandarin, some in English–is spurring staid state-run broadcasters to liven up their own act just as the arrival of Murdoch’s Sky TV or Silvio Berlusconi’s buccaneering stations shook up the established pubcasters in Europe.

And just as advertisers woke up to possibilities of pan-European campaigns in the ’80s, so now they’re looking at Asia differently: Star says it will pocket $ 150 million in ad revenues from such multinational players in ’92.

Most of the panelists–from Alter to researcher John Kaye of the Asian-based Survey Research Group–agreed that entertainment would drive future viewing patterns in the Far East and that English-language programming would become more prevalent in the area.

Regulatory restrictions exist

Even so, there are still bans on individual satellite dish ownership in Singapore and Malaysia, and a host of regulatory restrictions there and elsewhere, panelists noted.

Even Star TV honchos, including reps from the program acquisitions and the investment side of the Hutchinson Whampoa Empire, admitted that revenues are not coming into the service nearly as fast as viewers are hooking up.

Nevertheless, Star’s meteoric rise over the last two years has not escaped a number of Western players.

HBO Asian topper William Hooks told the audience that censorship and other restrictions have to be dealt with in a cooperative spirit–not with passive acceptance. While the gangster film “GoodFellas” was cut to bits by the Singapore censors, the company lobbied hard and got another controversial movie, “Judgment,” past the censors.

The BBC’s World Service TV CEO Chris Irwin and CNN Intl.’s Oz topper Greg Ell are competing in a number of Asian territories for the upmarket English-speaking news junkies. Irwin says the BBC is beaming 11.5 hours of Asian-related news to the region everyday; CNN has recently opened news bureaus in Bombay and Bangkok.

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